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Environmental refugees – Why an environmental refugee convention for the 21st century is needed

Since the development of the modern nation-state, people have been fleeing them.   The very concept of a nation-state developed out of warring territories.  The idea however, of international responsibility for individuals forced out of their nation clearly did not develop at the same time as nation states.  It wasn’t until after WW2 that any form of international responsibility became acknowledged in international law.  After WW2 politicians were concerned about the issues of the day (political, religious and ethnic persecution). The issue of environmental degradation as a cause to flee your country was not on the agenda.   We have to up-date what we understand to be a refugee.  We have to create a refugee convention fit for the 21st century.  A convention that covers the issues facing a 21st century refugee – climate change.  This problem is only going to get worse.

Other reasons why people flee also need to be taken into consideration.  For example sexuality need to be carefully considered.  The case of Mehdi Kazemi whose asylum claim was rejected despite his boyfriend in Iran already being executed for “sodomy” is a shameful blight on our countries recent history. This blog however will focus predominantly on the need to protect those who are fleeing their country for environmental reasons.

The problem inherent with climate change is that it is not one single environmental problem that forces people to flee. Instead it is a complex web of climate changes linked by unpredictable feedbacks.  Thus the science is still often contradictory. Indeed, one of the biggest mistakes advocates who connect climate change with increasing number of refugees make is to pretend they can predict how it will affect humanity exactly.  This simply is not possible. Thus it presents a huge challenge, how to prepare for and act on a slowly unifying field of scientific research when all major power sources in the current political climate appear to be working against environmental sustainability?  It is clear there are no easy answers for this question.

The basic problem with acknowledging environmental refugees is that it implicitly suggests that the west have to take responsibility for “our” actions.  The moral obligation was taken on by New Zealand to take in the citizens of the collection of small islands of Tuvalu; the independent nation-state which is predicted to be underwater within a century by rising sea levels.  Tuvalu has a population of just 11,000 and so a satisfactory solution was relatively easy to find, even if it’s not perfect.  The real challenge faced by the international community as a result of rising sea levels are the millions more to be displaced, the 15 million in the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta, Bangladesh. If we in the West accept that we have a responsibility, we have accepted we have a responsibility for the hundreds of millions of people fleeing for climate change related reasons.  Would any government want to do this?

The wider consequences of accepting the term environmental refugees are massive.  Governments would have to provide protection for millions more, 5 or 6 times the number of conventional refugees at the moment if you accept the UNEP estimate.  The refugee debate would need to open itself up to reconsider other categories of people left out of the current convention (Internally Displaced Person’s and sexuality for example).  The UN would then need to address its current structures, could one UN body address all these different fields and concerns? There is a fairly comprehensive argument that would suggest the UNHCR is struggling under its current mandate.  So potentially this could justify a separate environmental refugee commission.  With the international community acknowledging these new types of refugees could host countries cope?  Would this approach succeed or would there be a anti-asylum backlash? Would current host countries sign up to such a concept? These are all questions that must be addressed before taking on moral arguments surrounding environmental refugees. 

One thing is for sure; the idea of “charity” to “help” those affected by climate change is not sustainable. Too often governments acknowledge their role but hide behind concepts of charity.  The Tsunami disaster is a good example, individuals, governments and business alike pledged 278 million dollars to the humanitarian disaster; Oxfam was over whelmed with money but it was all given as ‘charity’.  Is there anything wrong with this? It provided the basic support mechanism that the 1.8 million displaced people so desperately needed.  The problem however is that the concept of charity is inconsistent and unreliable, while the Tsunami was being overly funded (and rightly so) there were still non headline grabbing locus plagues that hit the Sahel that left food shortages affecting 9 million.   Similarly the aid money that comes through charity doesn’t tackle the underlying problems, thus monetary aid is all too often used as a smokescreen for government inaction.  This is not to say it doesn’t have its role but it ultimately only fixes short-term problems.  Also, at any point (times of recession) it faces the threat of being withdrawn.

Governments should not be in a position where they can chose to act in a humanitarian sense in one moment but ignore other situations in another.  There is a need for a legally binding agreement to bond government’s obligation to act in the case of environmental refugees.  That is why a working definition is so important.  Despite this, there has been no adequate working definition of an ‘environmental refugee’ put forward.  This does not mean though that they are not real and not in need of real protection.  

This is not an issue that sits comfortably with a conclusion.  The debate around environmental refugees will continue and an adequate solution will not be reached.  We have known about these problems for decades and solutions have only been partially reached.  A working definition of a refugee that would deprive millions of the protection they deserve and require must be adopted and indeed codified into international law.   Few would argue that the current definition of ‘refugee’ is perfect; and indeed few would argue we would be better off without it.  The same applies to environmental refugees.   This leaves a close to impossible question, how do you quantify an environmental refugee.  Is it the level of human influence, the time scale or the number of displaced that should qualify the individuals who would claim environmental refugee status to be refugees?  It is clear though that a limited working definition remains better than none at all. 

Recent attention on climate change suggests that, perhaps, the time is now ripe for action to be taken to deal with the world’s environmental refugee problem.

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